Dec 222023

Wall Street Journal: The world in this current timeline has been a bit bleak lately. Fortunately for readers of alternate futures, the writer Martha Wells has delivered to us a hyperblast of joy: another wonderfully delightful offbeat adventure of the artificial consciousness readers have come to know as Murderbot.

The Murderbot Diaries started in 2017 with “All Systems Red” and reach their seventh installment with “System Collapse.” These compact, delightful stories are set in a downbeat future in which corporations control humankind’s interstellar colonies and keep many in lives of servitude. An even worse fate is life as a SecUnit, a Security Unit cyborg usually tasked with killing troublesome people and controlled by a module that eliminates free will. Our first-person narrator has been crafty enough to hack itself free—but instead of taking revenge on its creators and destroying every terrible human it encounters, this SecUnit (which decides to call itself Murderbot) would rather watch TV.

If you’re expecting a fast-moving android-becomes-human emotional arc, you’re going to be disappointed. Murderbot learns a little more about humans in each book but mostly remains grumpy, bored and uncomfortable when forced to spend time with its all-flesh counterparts.

In “System Collapse,” the Barish-Estranza corporation is offering to help the colonists of a planet whose machines have been contaminated by alien tech. But the company’s proposal to relocate the colonists sounds almost too good to be true. (It is.) Working with a cognitively powerful (and equally testy) spaceship called ART and a few human friends, our cyborg hero must fight off berserk robots, keep the good humans safe from the bad ones, and figure out how to convince the colonists that the corporation is not on their side. Murderbot also suffers frozen moments of human-style post-traumatic stress—all the more mysterious because the episodes seem to have been caused by an incident that never happened.

The SecUnit remains every bit as snarky and funny as it has been in the last six books, the perfectly conceived action as nearly nonstop as ever. (And we finally get to see the benefits of Murderbot’s TV addiction.) If there is anything negative to say about “System Collapse,” it’s that there doesn’t seem to be an actual system collapse. And sometimes the bits with humans emoting over things go on a little long (but that might be the Murderbot in me talking).

Outside of this series, Ms. Wells has written many other excellent books, including “Witch King,” which was reviewed here earlier this year. If you need something light, a little violent and laugh-out-loud hilarious, dive into this series: You may find that you have more in common with Murderbot than you think.